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Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

BuzzFeed's choice to publish dossier presents decision point for media values

David Zurawik finds a silver lining, of sorts, in BuzzFeed's misstep in publishing Trump dossier.

Amid all the confusion, rancor and even bias in the coverage of Donald Trump the past 19 months, finally there appears to be some good news about the state of the press today. It looks like there is at least one legacy value most mainstream news organizations won't abandon in reporting on the president-elect: verifying information before publishing it, no matter how eminently clickable it might be.

Maybe that's wishful thinking or a desperate desire to find something positive to say after almost two years of writing about the many failures of the press in covering one of the most unconventional and provocative candidates in the history of presidential politics.

But as dismayed as I was Tuesday by BuzzFeed's publication of a 35-page so-called "dossier" on Trump's relationship with Russia, I was cheered Wednesday by the near-universal condemnation of the website and the catalog of other publications that had the same information months ago and chose not to publish because they could not verify. The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC, CNN and Mother Jones — to name just a few.

Maybe, as the nation prepares to inaugurate Trump on Friday as its 45th president, we in the press can use this line-in-the-sand-of-eroding-values moment to take an honest look in the mirror and reconsider a mindset that took hold in some news operations during the campaign. Its central tenet: Trump is such an unprecedented and dangerous kind of candidate that new ways must to be found to cover him.

Unfortunately, some outlets also took that to mean legacy standards of fairness, proportionality and balance could be ditched in the process.

The Huffington Post was among the first to announce a new way of covering Trump in July 2015: "… we have decided we won't report on Trump's campaign as part of The Huffington Post's political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump's campaign is a sideshow."

The movement picked up steam with a New York Times media column by Jim Rutenberg in August 2016 that began: "If you're a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation's worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?"

BuzzFeed's reckless act Tuesday gave Trump exactly the kind of ammunition he knows so well how to use in condemning all press with the goal of inoculating himself against any criticism. And Trump quickly used it to go on the offensive in his news conference Wednesday, labeling CNN as "fake news" in an effort to put it in the same boat as BuzzFeed.

Instead of publishing the unconfirmed information as BuzzFeed did, CNN on Tuesday reported only on the existence of a two-page summary of the "dossier" that had been given to President Obama. And it verified its facts through independent sources. That was solid journalism, but Trump surely confused some viewers about the correctness of CNN's reporting by lumping it with BuzzFeed.

"Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of good will may disagree with our choice," Ben Smith, BuzzFeed's editor, wrote in a memo to staffers that was made public. "But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017."

I hope printing innuendo and rumor of highly questionable provenance is not the job of reporters in 2017, or this profession has become more debased than the harshest of our critics contends.

But Smith's words again sounded the theme of a new kind of reporting needed in 2017 to cover this story — one that did not include verifying information before publishing it.

Verification is not some fringe value in American journalism. Dan Rather's storied career at CBS News came to a premature end not because he was wrong in a 2004 report on the defunct "60 Minutes II" about George W. Bush receiving preferential treatment in the Air National Guard because of his father's influence. It was never determined whether Rather's report was true or not.

Rather was removed from the anchor desk and eventually pushed out at the network because he and his producers had gone on the air with documents they had not verified, which were immediately challenged.

I reported that sad saga cut by bloody cut, and I can tell you CBS News paid a terrible price in prestige and earnings for upholding the principle of verification even to the point where it claimed the career of its biggest star.

That's how deep-rooted the principle of verification is in the DNA of American journalism. The media only serve democracy if they are providing citizens with information they can trust, and verification is central to such trust.

"The Elements of Journalism," that elegant little road map to how the press best serves democracy, says, at its "essence," good journalism is a "discipline of verification."

But Smith and BuzzFeed have a new standard that justified publishing unverified information, which had originated in the gutter of political oppositional research.

They did it, he said, so that "Americans can make up their own minds about the allegations against the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government."

That's pretty much the same standard some of the sleaziest Hearst papers used in the 1950s to publish some of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's most savage lies about citizens whom he labeled communists without evidence.

Forget anything as abstract as truth; careers and lives can be shredded when you abandon the responsibility of verifying such information before you publish it — and that was information coming from a U.S. senator.

But maybe talking about Dan Rather and Memogate, let alone the darkness of McCarthyism and the 1950s, is too "old school" for editors like Smith.

To be fair, there was some sliver of support for what BuzzFeed did. The Columbia Journalism Review had an analysis headlined: "BuzzFeed was right to publish Trump-Russia Files."

"The most typical kind of investigative reporting entails spending months or even years gathering documents and cultivating sources to build an unshakable edifice," managing editor Vanessa M. Gezari, wrote. "BuzzFeed took a different but still well-established approach: Release what you can when you have it and see what new leads it generates."

Even if you don't know whether the information you are publishing is true or not? Well-established with whom?

Using that guideline, let's replay this greatest hit from the '50s: The State Department is filled with communists trying to bring down America. Let's see what kind of new leads we get from that and then print that unverified information — victims be damned.

But doing it that way is certainly faster, easier and cheaper than doing the kind of legacy investigative journalism that Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and The Washington Post used to bring down Richard Nixon. And he was even more dangerous than anyone could claim Trump to be today, because he had the full powers of the presidency behind him in his lies and assaults on the Constitution.

As Trump ascends to the presidency Friday, it is time to at least be honest about what's going on. Some members of the media who find Trump reprehensible have come to believe it's righteous to do whatever it takes to bring him down.

I think it's dishonest, and I further believe it's a grievous mistake for the profession to abandon our highest ethical standards in trying to achieve that goal. The end does not justify the means.

Besides, given the massive forces of economic change rocking our industry, we cannot afford too many more body blows to our credibility like the one BuzzFeed teed up for Trump with its excellent idea of what the job of reporting looks like in 2017.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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